24 Lessons Learned from the CS Teachers Conference

This weekend was ever New York City Computer Science (CS) Teachers’ Conference, a day of presentations by CS teachers and partners with a gallery of presenters, breakout sessions, keynote speakers (like Chris Emdin), CS authors, and activities all organized by the Computer Science for All team. It was a wonderful opportunity for teachers to connect, learn, and leave inspired to tackle existing challenges and forge new opportunities for students. Here were my key takeaways apart from the fact that a number of nerdy computer science teachers overlap a great deal with Star Wars fans.

Linda Chen speaking
  • CS thinking can happen without a computer. This almost seems obvious, but we need to be reminded that the 21st century-skills needed for success can involve tech, but aren’t wholly tied to it. Here’s a list of 7 types of CS Ed activities including several offline ones.
  • It’s one thing to play learning games with you students. It a whole other thing to have students building those games. Teachers like Cindy Wong and others recognize that intrinsically motivating learning empowers students to want to create even when the school day ends.
  • Good teaching is more about connections than content. Even Linda Chen, the city’s Chief Academic Officer, understands that shouting content info out into the ether is meaningless if students have no connection to it or to the person spouting it.
  • You can connect computer science to content. Platforms like BrainPOP’s Creative Coding connects coding to the content already being taught to students, so teachers don’t have to fight to try to find time for CS in their school day. It’s just another way for students to demonstrate their mastery of the information along with any other assessment you may choose to present.
  • Real change can begin now. That sounds like a trite poster that would have a kitten or runner on it, but this is to the specific point that the CS4All “experiment” that has been occurring for the last 4 years was in it’s infancy until this culminating event that gathers the change-makers together to form a cohesive plan at how to move things forward.
  • Don’t tether yourself to being appropriate especially in communities where the norm is divisive. For those communities that have not benefitted from the proverbial “rising tide”, fighting against propriety and the norm may not only need to be an occasional necessity but rather an ongoing part of structural change.
  • If you give kids tools without giving goals for those tools, they will destroy the tools. We get computers and other things for students without building in connections to them personally, their communities, or their future goals and we wonder why they don’t value this fancy technology. Understand though that, in their eyes, without those connections these may simply seem to be tools of continuing oppression.
  • If we want change we need to draw on new idea and new change makers. I’m all for teaching kids about Ada Lovelace and Jerry Lawson, but we need to first build connections to people meaningful to the students. Tell the story of how Nipsey Hustle built his own PC in order to create a studio to make music. Connect web design to promoting the hair salon the student wants to have.
  • What’s appropriate for school is whatever best builds the learning. So while you may look at Hip-Hop Ed and see only the issues with violence, misogyny, or homophobia don’t stop there. Understand that Shakespeare and social studies have their own share of those issues, but we’ve found ways to bring them into the classroom.
  • The genius exists if the will exists to activate the genius. Kids have the grit, but school conditions haven’t inspired them. Back when it was a thing, students in poor communities were building small businesses to build MySpace pages with better designs. But that was never connected to the curriculum or to a reputable business structure even the the skill was obviously there. There are some kids in those same neighborhoods building credit-card skimmers with their own electronics because they have the skills and want to profit but no legitimate means of using that skill was ever shown to them.
  • It’s not an absence of resources, it’s an absence of will. In NYC with school basements filled with old computers and devices no one uses, we can’t complain about the resources. Sure there are some buildings where the 3rd floor has 1 school with brand new displays and Chromebooks for every kid while the second floor has clocks hanging off the walls without a single computer made in the last 5 years. But get the kids to the basement and tear apart those old computers and build new ones. Use the free Neverware licenses the city gave to build your own fleet of decent devices. What’s stopping you? If the rules or administrators are holding you back on the green light then go on red.
  • Autism can actually be an asset and not an obstacle when it comes to computer science. Certain traits like focus, computational thinking, retention of information, or a novel approach which are commonly associated with students with autism can serve to facilitate better coding like you find in Darlene Bowman’s class.
  • Books are like a campfire. They are a finite story that gather people. Unlike the continuing pour of online information there are still places for books in a world of technology and computer science.
  • A tool is just a tool, the pedagogy gets us there. A computer in a classroom does nothing if the mindset isn’t right. You still just have digital worksheets and a body giving speeches in the front. We need to shift towards student-centric models empowering them to build their own learning processes and structures through hands-on experiences.
  • Modern curriculum goals must meet students at their level of comfort and engagement. If that child is interested in nature, sports, hairstyles, or hip-hop then meet that kid there. Then build a bridge between that point and the high aspirations you have for them.
  • You will encounter 3 types of people in your work, the co-constructor, the hater, and the sucker.
  • Co-constructors will critique you in a way that builds you up. You have to be open enough to take that critique without being overly defensive. Use it to help you grow and understand they are a partner in helping to make that happen.
  • Haters will tear you down, ignore them. You need to differentiate these critiques from the co-constructor. They’ll question what makes you special. Why should you be held in esteem more than them? Your efforts are only seen by them as some attempt for attention or Fighting them will only waste your time.
  • Suckers are to be torn down. These people question why you would even waste your time with “those kids” who could never do it anyway. And even the nicer suckers are thinking, well it’s up to me/you to “save these kids” as though they don’t have the inherent skill or motivation themselves. You may need to help to activate it or build connections, but most of it is about providing the freedom and opportunity to build their own learning in a constructive way. You need to call the suckers out and shut it down because it’s toxic to everyone.
  • Choose inspiration over admiration. Some teachers try too hard to look good. They want other teachers and students to stand in awe of them. I don’t think I would even trust a student who said “I admire you”. What kid talks like that? Maybe you can get “I care about you”. The problem with awe and being on a pedestal is that no one can be that close to you. That’s not effective teaching. Instead try to inspire the students to do their own awe-inspiring things.
  • Expertise is unnecessary for inspiration. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “โ€œPeople don’t care how much you know until they know how much you careโ€
  • There are many simple ways to inspire students. You can inspire students simply through your consistent and caring presence or via a shared struggle either academically or personally.
6 teachers at the CS Teacher Con
  • Connecting to positive forward-thinking educators is an essential part of continuing your growth. Whether it’s to draw ideas, inspiration, or to renew your spirit when you’re struggling or feeling isolated in your school, it’s important to connect to your personalized learning network to empower you.
  • It’s important for teachers to celebrate their own efforts the way they would celebrate those of students. On that note here are some teachers who built LED bracelets and learned quickly to perform with STEM for Dance. And as they say, continue to dance (and teach bravely) like no one is watching.

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